A SHORT HISTORY OF SLANG, OR
THE VULGAR LANGUAGE
Slang is the language of street humour, of fast, high, and low life. Cant, as was stated in the chapter upon that subject, is the vulgar language of secrecy. It must be admitted, however, that within the past few years they have become almost indivisible. They are both universal and ancient, and appear to have been, with certain exceptions, the offspring of gay, vulgar, or worthless persons in every part of the world at every period of time. Indeed, if we are to believe implicitly the saying of the wise man, that “there is nothing new under the sun,” the “bloods” of buried Nineveh, with their knotty and door-matty-looking beards, may have cracked Slang jokes on the steps of Sennacherib’s palace; while the stocks and stones of ancient Egypt, and the bricks of venerable and used-up Babylon, may be covered with Slang hieroglyphs, which, being perfectly unknown to modern antiquaries, have long been stumbling-blocks to the philologist; so impossible is it at this day to say what was then authorized, or what vulgar, language. The only objection that can be raised to this idea is, that Slang was, so far as can be discovered, traditional, and unwritten, until the appearance of this volume, a state of things which accounts for its many changes, and the doubtful orthography of even its best known and most permanent forms. Slang is almost as old as speech, and must date from the congregating together of people in cities. It is the result of crowding, and excitement, and artificial life. We have traces of this as far as we can refer back. Martial, the epigrammatist, is full of Slang. When an uninvited guest accompanied his friend, the Slang of the day styled him his “umbra;” when a man was trussed, neck and heels, it called him jocosely “quadrupus.” Slang is nowadays very often the only vehicle by which rodomontade may be avoided. It is often full of the most pungent satire, and is always to the point. Without point Slang has no raison d’être.
Old English Slang was coarser, and depended more upon downright vulgarity than our modern Slang. It was a jesting speech, or humorous indulgence for the thoughtless moment or the drunken hour, and it acted as a vent-peg for a fit of temper or irritability; but it did not interlard and permeate every description of conversation as now. It was confined to nicknames and improper subjects, and encroached but to a very small extent upon the domain of authorized speech. Indeed, it was exceedingly limited when compared with the vast territory of Slang in such general favour and complete circulation at the present day. Still, although not an extensive institution, as in our time, Slang certainly did exist in this country centuries ago, as we may see if we look down the page of any respectable History of England. Cromwell was familiarly called “Old Noll,”—in much the same way as Bonaparte was termed “Boney,” and Wellington “Conkey” or “Nosey,” only a few years ago. His Legislature, too, was spoken of in a high-flavoured way as the “Barebones” or “Rump” Parliament, and his followers were nicknamed “Roundheads,” and the peculiar religious sects of his protectorate were styled “Puritans” and “Quakers.” The Civil War pamphlets, and the satirical hits of the Cavaliers and the Commonwealth men, originated numerous Slang words and vulgar similes in full use at the present moment. Here is a field of inquiry for the Philological Society, indeed a territory, for there are thirty thousand of these partisan tracts. Later still, in the court of Charles II., the naughty ladies and the gay lords, with Rochester at their head, talked Slang; and very naughty Slang it was too. Fops in those days, when “over head and ears” in debt, and in continual fear of arrest, termed their enemies, the bailiffs, “Philistines” or “Moabites.” At a later period, when collars were worn detached from shirts, in order to save the expense of washing—an object, it would seem, with needy “swells” in all ages—they obtained the name of “Jacobites.” One-half of the coarse wit in Butler’s Hudibras lurks in the vulgar words and phrases which he was so fond of employing. These Slang phrases contained the marrow of his arguments stripped of all superfluous matter, and they fell with ponderous weight and terrible effect upon his opponents. They were more homely and forcible than the mild and elegant sentences of Cowley, and the people, therefore, hurrahed them, and pronounced Butler one of themselves,—or, as we should say, in a joyful moment, “a jolly good fellow.” Orator Henley preached and prayed in Slang, and first charmed and then ruled the dirty mobs in Lincoln’s Inn Fields by vulgarisms. Burly Grose mentions Henley, with the remark that we owe a great many Slang phrases to him, though even the worst Slang was refinement itself compared with many of Henley’s most studied oratorical utterances, which proves that the most blackguard parts of a blackguard speech may be perfectly free from either Slang or Cant. Swift, and old Sir Roger L’Estrange, and Arbuthnot, were all fond of vulgar or Slang language; indeed, we may see from a Slang word used by the latter how curious is the gradual adoption of vulgar terms in our standard dictionaries. The worthy doctor, in order to annihilate (or, as we should say, with a fitting respect to the subject under consideration, to “smash”) an opponent, thought proper on an occasion to use the word “cabbage,” not in the ancient sense of a flatulent vegetable of the kitchen-garden, but in the at once Slang sense of purloining or cribbing. Johnson soon met with the word, looked at it, examined it, weighed it, and shook his head, but out of respect to a brother doctor inserted it in his dictionary, labelling it, however, prominently “Cant;” whilst Walker and Webster, years after, when all over England “to cabbage” was to pilfer, placed the term in their dictionaries as an ancient and very respectable word. Another Slang term, “gull,” to cheat, or delude, sometimes varied to “gully,” is stated to be connected with the Dean of St. Patrick’s. “Gull,” a dupe, or a fool, is often used by our old dramatists, and is generally believed to have given rise to the verb; but a curious little edition of Bamfylde Moore Carew, published in 1827, says that “to gull,” or “gully,” is derived from the well-known Gulliver, the hero of the famous Travels. It may be from the phrase, “You can’t come Gulliver over me,” in use while the popularity of the book was hot. How crammed with Slang are the dramatic works of the last century! The writers of the comedies and farces in those days must have lived in the streets, and written their plays in the public-houses, so filled are they with vulgarisms and unauthorized words. The popular phrases, “I owe you one,” “That’s one for his nob,” and “Keep moving, dad,” arose in this way. The second of these sayings was, doubtless, taken from the card-table, for at cribbage the player who holds the knave of the suit turned up counts “one for his nob,” and the dealer who turns up a knave counts “two for his heels.” From a dramatic point of view, the use of these phrases is perfectly correct, as they were in constant use among the people supposed to be represented by the author’s characters.
In Mrs. Centlivre’s admirable comedy of A Bold Stroke for a Wife, we see the origin of that popular phrase, the real Simon Pure. Simon Pure is the Quaker name adopted by Colonel Feignwell as a trick to obtain the hand of Mistress Anne Lovely in marriage. The veritable Quaker, the “real Simon Pure,” recommended by Aminadab Holdfast, of Bristol, as a fit sojourner with Obadiah Prim, arrives at last, to the discomfiture of the Colonel, who, to maintain his position and gain time, concocts a letter in which the real Quaker is spoken of as a housebreaker who had travelled in the “leather conveniency” from Bristol, and adopted the garb and name of the western Quaker in order to pass off as the “Real Simon Pure,” but only for the purpose of robbing the house and cutting the throat of the perplexed Obadiah. The scene in which the two Simon Pures, the real and the counterfeit, meet, is one of the best in the comedy.
Tom Brown, of “facetious memory,” as his friends were wont to say, and Ned Ward, who wrote humorous books, and when tired drew beer for his customers at his alehouse in Long Acre, were both great producers of Slang in the last century, and to them we owe many popular current phrases and household words.
Written Slang was checked, rather than advanced, by the pens of Addison, Johnson, and Goldsmith; although Bee, the bottle-holder and historiographer of the pugilistic band of brothers in the youthful days of flat-nosed Tom Cribb, has gravely stated that Johnson, when young and rakish, contributed to an early volume of the Gentleman’s Magazine a few pages, by way of specimen, of a slang dictionary, the result, Mr. Bee says, “of his midnight ramblings!” This statement is not only improbable, but an investigation of the venerable magazine, though strict and searching, produces no evidence in corroboration of Mr. Bee. Goldsmith, even, certainly coined a few words as occasion required, although as a rule his pen was pure and graceful, and adverse to neologisms. The word “fudge,” it has been stated, was first used by him in literary composition, although it probably originated with one Captain Fudge, a notorious fibber, nearly a century before. Street phrases, nicknames, and vulgar words were continually being added to the great stock of popular Slang up to the commencement of the present century, when it received numerous additions from pugilism, horse-racing, and “fast” life generally, which suddenly came into great public favour, and was at its height in the latter part of the reign of George III., and in the early days of the Regency. Slang in those days was generally termed “flash” language. It will thus be noted that the term “flash” has in turn represented both Cant and Slang; now the word Slang has become perfectly generic. So popular was “flash” with the “bloods” of high life, that it constituted the best paying literary capital for certain authors and dramatists. Pierce Egan issued Boxiana, and Life in London, six portly octavo volumes, crammed with Slang; and Moncrieff wrote the most popular farce of the day, Tom and Jerry (adapted from the latter work), which, to use newspaper Slang, “took the town by storm,” and, with its then fashionable vulgarisms, made the fortune of the old Adelphi Theatre, and was without exception the most wonderful instance of a continuous theatrical run in ancient or modern times. This also was brimful of Slang. Other authors helped to popularize and extend Slang down to our own time, and it has now taken a somewhat different turn, dropping many of the Cant and old vulgar words, and assuming a certain quaint and fashionable phraseology—familiar, utilitarian, and jovial. There can be no doubt that common speech is greatly influenced by fashion, fresh manners, and that general change of ideas which steals over a people once in a generation. But before proceeding further into the region of Slang, it will be well to say something on the etymology of the word.
The word Slang is only mentioned by two lexicographers—Webster and Ogilvie. Johnson, Walker, and the older compilers of dictionaries give “slang” as the preterite of “sling,” but not a word about Slang in the sense of low, vulgar, or unrecognised language. The origin of the word has often been asked for in literary journals and books, but only one man, until recently, ever hazarded an etymology—Jonathan Bee. With a recklessness peculiar to ignorance, Bee stated that Slang was derived from “the slangs or fetters worn by prisoners, having acquired that name from the manner in which they were worn, as they required a sling of string to keep them off the ground.” Bee had just been nettled at Pierce Egan’s producing a new edition of Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, and was determined to excel in a vulgar dictionary of his own, which should be more racy, more pugilistic, and more original. How far he succeeded in this latter particular, his ridiculous etymology of Slang will show. Slang is not an English word; it is the Gipsy term for their secret language, and its synonym is Gibberish—another word which was believed to have had no distinct origin. Grose—stout and burly Captain Grose—whom we may characterize as the greatest antiquary, joker, and porter-drinker of his day, was the first lexicographer to recognise the word “Slang.” It occurs in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, of 1785, with the statement that it implies “Cant or vulgar language.” Grose was a great favourite with Burns, and so pleased him by his extensive powers of story-telling and grog-imbibing, that the companionable and humour-loving Scotch bard wrote for his fat friend—or, to use his own words, “the fine, fat, fodgel wight”—the immortal poem of Tam O’ Shanter.
It is not worth while troubling the reader with a long account of the transformation into an English term of the word Slang, as it is easily seen how we obtained it. Hucksters and beggars on tramp, or at fairs and races, associate and frequently join in any rough enterprise with the Gipsies. The word would be continually heard by them, and would in this manner soon become part of their vocabulary, and, when carried by “fast” or vulgar fashionables from the society of thieves and low characters to their own drawing-rooms, would as quickly become Slang, and the representative term for all vulgar language. Modern philologists give the word Slang as derived from the French langue. This is, at all events, as likely as any other derivative.
Any sudden excitement or peculiar circumstance is quite sufficient to originate and set going a score of Slang words. Nearly every election or public agitation throws out offshoots of excitement, or scintillations of humour in the shape of Slang terms—vulgar at first, but at length adopted, if possessing sufficient hold on the public mind, as semi-respectable from sheer force of habit. There is scarcely a condition or calling in life that does not possess its own peculiar Slang. The professions, legal and medical, have each familiar and unauthorized terms for peculiar circumstances and things, and it is quite certain that the clerical calling, or “the cloth”—in itself a Slang term given at a time when the laity were more distinguished by their gay dress from the clergy than they are now—is not entirely free from this peculiarity. Every workshop, warehouse, factory, and mill throughout the country has its Slang, and so have the public schools and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Sea Slang constitutes the principal charm of a sailor’s “yarn;” and our soldiers have in turn their peculiar nicknames and terms for things and subjects, proper and improper. A writer in Household Words (No. 183) has gone so far as to remark, that a person “shall not read one single parliamentary debate, as reported in a first-class newspaper, without meeting scores of Slang words,” and “that from Mr. Speaker in his chair, to the Cabinet Ministers whispering behind it—from mover to seconder, from true blue Protectionist to extremest Radical—Mr. Barry’s New House echoes and re-echoes with Slang.” This statement is most worthy of notice, as showing how, with a very small sub-stratum of fact, a plausible, though not the less gigantic, mis-statement may be built up.
The universality of Slang is extraordinary. Let any person for a short time narrowly examine the conversation of his dearest and nearest friends, or even analyse his own supposed correct talk, and he shall be amazed at the numerous unauthorized, and what we can only call vulgar, words in constant use. One peculiarity of the growth of Slang is the finding of new meanings for old words. Take, for instance, the verbs “do,” “cut,” “go,” and “take,” and see how they are used to express fresh ideas, and then let us ask ourselves how is it possible for a Frenchman or German, be he never so well educated, to avoid continually blundering and floundering amongst our little words when trying to make himself understood in an ordinary conversation? He may have studied our language the required time, and have gone through the usual amount of “grinding,” and practised the common allotment of patience, but all to no purpose as far as accuracy is concerned. As, however, we do not make our language, nor for the matter of that our Slang, for the convenience or inconvenience of foreigners, we need not pursue this portion of the subject further. “Jabber” and “hoax” were Slang and Cant terms in Swift’s time; so, indeed, were “mob” and “sham.” Words directly from the Latin and Greek, framed in accordance with the rules which govern the construction of the language, are not Slang, but are good English, if not Saxon,—a term, by the way, which is as much misused as any unfortunate word that can be remembered just now. Sound contributes many Slang words—a source that etymologists frequently overlook. Nothing pleases an ignorant person so much as a high-sounding term, “full of fury.” How melodious and drum-like are those vulgar coruscations “rumbumptious,” “slantingdicular,” “splendiferous,” “rumbustious,” and “ferricadouzer.” What a “pull” the sharp-nosed lodging-house-keeper thinks she has over her victims if she can but hurl such testimonies of a liberal education at them when they are disputing her charges, and threatening to “absquatulate!” In the United States the vulgar-genteel even excel the poor “stuck-up” Cockneys in their formation of a native fashionable language. How charming to a refined ear are “abskize,” “catawampously,” “exflunctify,” “obscute,” “keslosh,” “kesouse,” “keswollop,” and “kewhollux!” It must not be forgotten, however, that a great many new “Americanisms” are perfectly unknown in America, and in this respect they resemble the manners and customs of our cousins as found in books, and in books only. Vulgar words representing action and brisk movement often owe their origin to sound, as has before been remarked. Mispronunciation, too, is another great source of vulgar or Slang words, and of this “ramshackle,” “shackly,” “nary-one” for neither or neither one, “ottomy” or “atomy” for anatomy, “rench” for rinse, are specimens. The commonalty dislike frequently-occurring words difficult of pronunciation, and so we have the street abridgments of “bimeby” for by-and-by, “caze” for because, “gin” for given, “hankercher” for handkerchief, “ruma tiz” for rheumatism, “backer” for tobacco, and many others, not perhaps Slang, but certainly, all vulgarisms. Whately, in his Remains of Bishop Copleston, has inserted a leaf from the bishop’s note-book on the popular corruption of names, mentioning, among others, “kickshaws,” as from the French quelques choses; “beefeater,” the grotesque guardian of royalty in a procession, and the envied devourer of enormous beefsteaks, as but a vulgar pronunciation of the French buffetier, and “George and Cannon,” the sign of a public-house, as nothing but a corruption (although so soon!) of the popular premier of the last generation, George Canning. Literature has its Slang terms; and the desire on the part of writers to say funny and startling things in a novel and curious way contributes many unauthorized words to the great stock of Slang.
Fashionable or Upper-class Slang is of several varieties. There is the Belgravian, military and naval, parliamentary, dandy, and the reunion and visiting Slang. English officers, civilians, and their families, who have resided long in India, have contributed many terms from the Hindostanee to our language. Several of these, such as “chit,” a letter, and “tiffin,” lunch, are fast losing their Slang character, and becoming regularly-recognised English words. “Jungle,” as a term for a forest or wilderness, is now an English phrase; a few years past, however, it was merely the Hindostanee “junkul.” This, being a perfectly legal transition, having no other recognised form, can hardly be characterized as Slang. The extension of trade in China, and the English settlement of Hong Kong, have introduced among us several examples of Canton jargon, that exceedingly curious Anglo-Chinese dialect spoken in the seaports of the Celestial Empire. While these words have been carried as it were into the families of the upper and middle classes, persons in a humbler rank of life, through the sailors and soldiers and Lascar and Chinese beggars that haunt the metropolis, have also adopted many Anglo-Indian and Anglo-Chinese phrases. As this dictionary would have been incomplete without them, they are carefully recorded in its pages. Concerning the Slang of the fashionable world, it has been remarked that it is mostly imported from France; and that an unmeaning gibberish of Gallicisms runs through English fashionable conversation and fashionable novels, and accounts of fashionable parties in the fashionable newspapers. Yet, ludicrously enough, immediately the fashionable magnates of England seize on any French idiom, the French themselves not only universally abandon it to us, but positively repudiate it altogether from their idiomatic vocabulary. If you were to tell a well-bred Frenchman that such and such an aristocratic marriage was on the tapis, he would stare with astonishment, and look down on the carpet in the startled endeavour to find a marriage in so unusual a place. If you were to talk to him of the beau monde, he would imagine you meant the world which God made, not half-a-dozen streets and squares between Hyde Park Corner and Chelsea Bun House. The thé dansant would be completely inexplicable to him. If you were to point out to him the Dowager Lady Grimgriffin acting as chaperon to Lady Amanda Creamville, he would imagine you were referring to the petit Chaperon rouge—to little Red-Riding Hood. He might just understand what was meant by vis-à-vis, entremets, and some others of the flying horde of frivolous little foreign slangisms hovering about fashionable cookery and fashionable furniture; but three-fourths of them would seem to him as barbarous French provincialisms, or, at best, but as antiquated and obsolete expressions, picked out of the letters of Mademoiselle Scuderi, or the tales of Crebillon “the younger.” Servants, too, appropriate the scraps of French conversation which fall from their masters’ guests at the dinner table, and forthwith in the world of flunkeydom the word “know” is disused, and the lady’s-maid, in doubt on a particular point, asks John whether or no he “saveys” it? What, too, can be more abominable than that heartless piece of fashionable newspaper Slang, regularly employed when speaking of the successful courtship of young people in the aristocratic world:—
Marriage in High Life.—We understand that a marriage is arranged (!) betwixt the Lady, &c. &c., and the Honourable, &c. &c.
“Arranged!” Is that cold-blooded Smithfield or Mark Lane term for a sale or a purchase the proper word to express the hopeful, joyous, golden union of young and trustful hearts? Possibly, though, the word is often used with a due regard to facts, for marriages, especially amongst our upper classes, are not always “made in heaven.” Which is the proper way to pronounce the names of great people, and what the correct authority? Lord Cowper, we are often assured, is Lord Cooper—on this principle Lord Cowley would certainly be Lord Cooley—and Mr. Carew, we are told, should be Mr. Carey, Ponsonby should be Punsunby, Eyre should be Aire, Cholmondeley should be Chumley, St. John Sinjen, Beauchamp should be Beachem, Majoribanks Marshbanks, and Powell should always be Poel. The pronunciation of proper names has long been an anomaly in the conversation of the upper classes of this country. Hodge and Podge, the clodhoppers of Shakspeare’s time, talked in their mug-houses of the great Lords Darbie, Barkelie, and Bartie. In Pall Mall and May Fair these personages are spoken of in exactly the same manner at the present day, whilst in the City, and amongst the middle classes, we only hear of Derby, Berkeley, &c.,—the correct pronunciations, if the spelling is worth aught. It must not be forgotten, however, that the pronunciation of the upper classes, as regards the names of places just mentioned, is a relic of old times when the orthography was different. The middle-class man is satisfied to take matters the modern way, but even he, when he wishes to be thought a swell, alters his style. In fact, the old rule as to proper names being pronounced according to individual taste, is, and ever will be, of absolute necessity, not only as regards the upper and middle, but the lower classes. A costermonger is ignorant of such a place as Birmingham, but understands you in a moment if you talk of Brummagem. Why do not Pall Mall exquisites join with the costermongers in this pronunciation? It is the ancient one.
Parliamentary Slang, excepting a few peculiar terms connected with “the House” (scarcely Slang), is mainly composed of fashionable, literary, and learned Slang. When members get excited, and wish to be forcible, they are now and again, but not very often, found guilty of vulgarisms, and then may be not particular which of the street terms they select, providing it carries, as good old Dr. South said, plenty of “wildfire” in it. Lord Cairns when Sir Hugh, and a member of the Lower House, spoke of “that homely but expressive phrase, ‘dodge.’” Out of “the House,” several Slang terms are used in connexion with Parliament or members of Parliament. If Lord Palmerston was familiar by name to the tribes of the Caucasus and Asia Minor as a great foreign diplomatist, when the name of our Queen was unknown to the inhabitants of those parts—as was once stated in the Times—it is worthy of remark that, amongst the costers and the wild inhabitants of the streets, he was at that time better known as “Pam.” The cabmen on the “ranks” in Piccadilly have been often heard to call each other’s attention to the great leader of the Opposition in the following expressive manner—“Hollo, there! de yer see old ‘Dizzy’ doing a stump?” A “plumper” is a single vote at an election—not a “split-ticket;” and electors who had occupied a house, no matter how small, and boiled a pot in it, thus qualifying themselves for voting, used in the good old days to be termed “potwallopers.” A quiet “walk over” is a re-election without opposition and much cost; and is obtained from the sporting vocabulary, in which the term is not Slang. A “caucus” meeting refers to the private assembling of politicians before an election, when candidates are chosen, and measures of action agreed upon. The term comes from America, where caucus means a meeting simply. A “job,” in political phraseology, is a Government office or contract obtained by secret influence or favouritism; and is not a whit more objectionable in sound than is the nefarious proceeding offensive to the sense of those who pay but do not participate. The Times once spoke of “the patriotic member of Parliament ‘potted out’ in a dusty little lodging somewhere about Bury Street.” But then the Times was not always the mildly respectable high-class paper it now is, as a reference to the columns devoted by it to Macaulay’s official career will alone determine. These, which appeared during the present reign, would be far below the lowest journalistic taste nowadays; yet they are in keeping with the rest of the political references made at that time by the now austere and high-principled “leading journal.” The term “quockerwodger,” although referring to a wooden toy figure which jerks its limbs about when pulled by a string, has been supplemented with a political meaning. A pseudo-politician, whose strings of action are pulled by somebody else, is often termed a “quockerwodger.” From an early period politics and partyism have attracted unto themselves quaint Slang terms. Horace Walpole quotes a party nickname of February, 1742, as a Slang word of the day:—“The Tories declare against any further prosecution, if Tories there are, for now one hears of nothing but the ‘broad-bottom;’ it is the reigning Cant word, and means the taking all parties and people, indifferently, into the Ministry.” Thus “broad-bottom” in those days was Slang for “coalition.” The term “rat,” too, in allusion to rats deserting vessels about to sink, has long been employed towards those turncoat politicians who change their party for interest. Who that occasionally passes near the Houses of Parliament has not often noticed stout or careful M.P.’s walk briskly through the Hall, and on the kerb-stone in front, with umbrella or walking-cane uplifted, shout to the cabmen on the rank, “Four-wheeler!” The term is both useful and expressive; but it is none the less Slang, though of a better kind than “growler,” used to denominate the same kind of vehicle, or “shoful,” the street term for a hansom cab.
Military Slang is on a par, and of a character, with dandy Slang. Inconvenient friends, or elderly and lecturing relatives, are pronounced “dreadful bores.” This affectionate term, like most other Slang phrases which have their rise in a certain section of society, has spread and become of general application. Four-wheeled cabs are called “bounders;” and a member of the Four-in-hand Club, driving to Epsom on the Derby Day, would, using fashionable phraseology, speak of it as “tooling his drag down to the Derby.” A vehicle, if not a “drag” (or dwag), is a “trap,” or a “cask;” and if the “turn-out” happens to be in other than a trim condition, it is pronounced at once as not “down the road,” unless the critic should prefer to characterize the equipage as “dickey.” Your City swell would say it is not “up to the mark;” whilst the costermonger would call it a “wery snide affair.” In the army a barrack or military station is known as a “lobster-box;” to “cram” for an examination is to “mug-up” (this same term is much in vogue among actors, who regard mugging-up as one of the fine arts of the profession); to reject from the examination is to “spin;” and that part of the barrack occupied by subalterns is frequently spoken of as the “rookery.” In dandy or swell Slang, any celebrity, from the Poet-Laureate to the Pope of Rome, is a “swell,”—“the old swell” now occupies the place once held by the “guv’nor.” Wrinkled-faced old professors, who hold dress and fashionable tailors in abhorrence, are called “awful swells,”—if they happen to be very learned or clever. In this upper-class Slang, a title is termed a “handle;” trousers, “inexpressibles,” and bags, or “howling bags,” when of a large pattern;—a superior appearance, or anything above the common cut, is styled “extensive;” a four-wheeled cab is called a “birdcage;” a dance, a “hop;” dining at another man’s table, “sitting under his mahogany;” anything flashy or showy, “loud;” the peculiar make or cut of a coat, its “build;” full dress, “full fig;” wearing clothes which represent the very extreme of fashion, “dressing to death;” a dinner or supper party, a “spread;” a friend (or a “good fellow”), a “trump;” a difficulty, a “screw loose;” and everything that is unpleasant, “from bad sherry to a writ from a tailor,” “jeuced infernal.” The phrase, “to send a man to Coventry,” or permit no person “in the set” to speak to him, although an ancient saying, must still be considered Slang.
The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and the great public schools, are the hotbeds of fashionable Slang. Growing boys and high-spirited young fellows detest restraint of all kinds, and prefer making a dash at life in a Slang phraseology of their own to all the set forms and syntactical rules of Alma Mater. Many of the most expressive words in a common chit-chat, or free-and-easy conversation, are old university vulgarisms. “Cut,” in the sense of dropping an acquaintance, was originally a Cambridge form of speech; and “hoax,” to deceive or ridicule, we are informed by Grose, was many years since an Oxford term. Among the words that fast society has borrowed from our great scholastic—not establishments (they are sacred to linendrapery and “gentlemanly assistants”)—institutions, is found “crib,” a house or apartments; “dead men,” empty wine bottles; “drawing teeth,” wrenching off knockers,—an obsolete amusement; “fizzing,” first-rate, or splendid; “governor,” or “relieving-officer,” the general term for a male parent; “plucked,” defeated or turned back, now altered to “plough;” “quiz,” to scrutinize, or a prying old fellow; and “row,” a noisy disturbance. The Slang words in use at Oxford and Cambridge would alone fill a volume. As examples let us take “scout,” which at Oxford refers to an undergraduate’s valet, whilst the same menial at Cambridge is termed a “gyp,”—popularly derived by the Cantabs from the Greek, γὺψ, a vulture; “skull,” the head, or master, of a college; “battles,” the Oxford term for rations, changed at Cambridge into “commons.” The term “dickey,” a half-shirt, it is said, originated with the students of Trinity College, Dublin, who at first styled it a “tommy,” from the Greek τομὴ, a section,—the change from “tommy” to “dickey” requires no explanation. “Crib,” a literal translation, is now universal; “grind” refers to “working up” for an examination, also to a walk or “constitutional;” “Hivite” is a student of St. Begh’s (St. Bee’s) College, Cumberland; to “japan,” in this Slang speech, is to ordain; “mortar board” is a square college cap; “sim,” a student of a Methodistical turn—in allusion to the Rev. Charles Simeon; “sloggers,” at Cambridge, refers to the second division of race-boats, known at Oxford as “torpids;” “sport” is to show or exhibit; “trotter” is the jocose term for a tailor’s man who goes round for orders; and “tufts” are privileged students who dine with the “dons,” and are distinguished by golden tufts, or tassels, in their caps. Hence we get the world-wide Slang term “tuft-hunter,” one whose pride it is to be acquainted with scions of the nobility—a sycophantic race unfortunately not confined to any particular place or climate, nor peculiar to any age or either sex. There are many terms in use at Oxford not known at Cambridge; and such Slang names as “coach,” “gulf,” “harry-soph,” “poker,” or “post-mortem,” common enough at Cambridge, are seldom or never heard at the great sister University. For numerous other examples of college Slang the reader is referred to the Dictionary.
Religious Slang, strange as the compound may appear, exists with other descriptions of vulgar speech at the present day. Punch, in one of those half-humorous, half-serious articles, once so characteristic of the wits engaged on that paper, who were, as a rule, fond of lecturing any national abuse or popular folly, remarked—“Slang has long since penetrated into the Forum, and now we meet it in the Senate, and even the pulpit itself is no longer free from its intrusion.” There is no wish here, for one moment, to infer that the practice is general. On the contrary, and in justice to the clergy, it must be said that the principal disseminators of pure English throughout the country are the ministers of our Established Church. Yet it cannot be denied that a great deal of Slang phraseology and expressive vulgarism have gradually crept into the very pulpits which should give forth as pure speech as doctrine. This is an error which, however, has only to be noticed, to be cured.
Dean Conybeare, in his able “Essay on Church Parties,” has noticed this addition of Slang to our pulpit speech. As stated in his Essay, the practice appears to confine itself mainly to the exaggerated forms of the High and Low Church—the Tractarians and the “Recordites.” By way of illustration, the Dean cites the evening parties, or social meetings, common amongst the wealthier lay members of the Recordite churches, where the principal topics discussed—one or more favourite clergymen being present in a quasi-official manner—are “the merits and demerits of different preachers, the approaching restoration of the Jews, the date of the Millennium, the progress of the ‘Tractarian heresy,’ and the anticipated ‘perversion’ of High Church neighbours.” These subjects are canvassed in a dialect differing considerably from English, as the word is generally understood. The terms “faithful,” “tainted,” “acceptable,” “decided,” “legal,” and many others, are used in a sense different from that given to any of them by the lexicographers. We hear that Mr. A. has been more “owned” than Mr. B.; and that Mr. C. has more “seals” than Mr. D. Again, the word “gracious” is invested with a meaning as extensive as that attached by young ladies to nice. Thus, we hear of a “gracious sermon,” a “gracious meeting,” a “gracious child,” and even a “gracious whipping.” The word “dark” has also a new and peculiar usage. It is applied to every person, book, or place not impregnated with Recordite principles. A ludicrous misunderstanding resulting from this phraseology is on record (this is not a joke). “What did you mean,” said A. to B., “by telling me that —— was such a very ‘dark’ village? I rode over there to-day, and found the street particularly broad and cheerful, and there is not a tree in the place.” “The gospel is not preached there,” was B’s. laconic reply. The conclusion of one of these singular evening parties is generally marked by an “exposition”—an unseasonable sermon of nearly one hour’s duration, circumscribed by no text, and delivered from the table by one of the clerical visitors with a view to “improve the occasion.” This same term, “improve the occasion,” is of Slang slangy, and is so mouthed by Stigginses and Chadbands, and their followers, that it has become peculiarly objectionable to persons of broad views. In the Essay to which reference has been made, the religious Slang terms for the two great divisions of the Established Church receive some explanation. The old-fashioned High Church party—rich and “stagnant,” noted for its “sluggish mediocrity, hatred of zeal, dread of innovation, abuse of Dissent, blundering and languid utterance”—is called the “high and dry;” whilst the opposing division, known as the Low Church—equally stagnant with the former, but poorer, and more lazily inclined (from absence of education) towards Dissent—receives the nickname of the “low and slow.” These terms are among persons learned in the distinctions shortened, in ordinary conversation, to the “dry” and the “slow.” The Broad Church, or moderate division, is often spoken of as the “broad and shallow.”
What can be more objectionable than the irreverent and offensive manner in which many Dissenting ministers continually pronounce the names of the Deity—God and Lord? God, instead of pronouncing in the plain and beautiful simple old English way, “G‑o‑d,” they drawl out into “Gorde” or “Gaude;” and Lord, instead of speaking in the proper way, they desecrate into “Loard” or “Loerd,”—lingering on the u, or the r, as the case may be, until an honest hearer feels disgusted, and almost inclined to run the gauntlet of beadles and deacons, and pull the vulgar preacher from his pulpit. This is, though a Christian impulse, hardly in accordance with our modern times and tolerant habits. Many young preachers strive hard to acquire this peculiar pronunciation, in imitation of the older ministers. What, then, can more properly be called Slang, or, indeed, the most objectionable of Slang, than this studious endeavour to pronounce the most sacred names in a uniformly vulgar and unbecoming manner? If the old-fashioned preacher whistled Cant through his nose, the modern vulgar reverend whines Slang from the more natural organ. These vagaries of speech will, perhaps, by an apologist, be termed “pulpit peculiarities,” and the writer may be impugned for having dared to intermeddle with a subject that is or should be removed from his criticisms. Honesty of purpose and evident truthfulness of remark will, however, overcome the most virulent opposition. The terms used by the mob towards the Church, however illiberal and satirically vulgar, are fairly within the province of an inquiry such as the present. A clergyman, in vulgar language, is spoken of as a “choker,” a “cushion-thumper,” a “dominie,” an “earwig,” a “gospel-grinder,” a “grey-coat parson;” a “spouter,” a “white-choker,” or a “warming-pan rector,” if he only holds the living pro tempore. If he is a lessee of the great tithes, “one in ten;” or if spoken of by an Anglo-Indian, a “rook.” If a Tractarian, his outer garment is rudely spoken of as a “pygostole,” or “M. B. (mark of the beast) coat.” His profession is termed “the cloth” (this item of Slang has been already referred to), and his practice is called “tub-thumping.” This latter term has of late years been almost peculiarly confined to itinerant preachers. Should he belong to the Dissenting body, he is probably styled a “pantiler,” or a “psalm smiter,” or perhaps, a “swaddler.” His chapel, too, is spoken of as a “schism shop.” A Roman Catholic is coarsely named a “brisket-beater.”
Particular as lawyers generally are about the meanings of words, they have not prevented an unauthorized phraseology from arising, which may be termed legal Slang. So forcibly did this truth impress a late writer, that he wrote in a popular journal, “You may hear Slang every day in term from barristers in their robes, at every mess-table, at every bar-mess, at every college commons, and in every club dining-room.” Swift, in his Art of Polite Conversation (p. 15), published a century and a half ago, states that “vardi” was the Slang in his time for “verdict.” A few of the most common and well-known terms used out of doors, with reference to legal matters, are “cook,” to hash or make up a balance-sheet; “dipped,” mortgaged; “dun” (from a famous writ or process-server named Dunn), to solicit payment; “fullied,” to be “fully committed for trial;” “land shark,” a sailor’s definition of a lawyer; “limb of the law,” a milder term for the same “professional;” “monkey with a long tail,” a mortgage; “mouthpiece,” the thief’s term for his counsel; “to run through the ring,” to take advantage of the Insolvency Act; “smash,” to become bankrupt; “snipe,” an attorney with a long bill; and “whitewash,” to take the benefit of the Insolvent Act. Comparatively recent legislation has rendered many of these terms obsolete, and “in liquidation” is now the most ominous sound a creditor can hear. Lawyers, from their connexion with the police courts, and transactions with persons in every grade of society, have ample opportunities for acquiring street Slang, of which, in cross-questioning and wrangling, they frequently avail themselves.
It has been said there exists a literary Slang, or the Slang of Criticism—dramatic, artistic, and scientific. This is composed of such words as “æsthetic,” “transcendental,” “the harmonies,” “the unities,” a “myth;” such phrases as “an exquisite morceau on the big drum,” a “scholarlike rendering of John the Baptist’s great toe,” “keeping harmony,” “middle distance,” “aërial perspective,” “delicate handling,” “nervous chiaroscuro,” and the like. It is easy to find fault with this system of doing work, whilst it is not easy to discover another at once so easily understood by educated readers, and so satisfactory to artists themselves. Discretion must, of course, always be used, in fact always is used by the best writers, with regard to the quantity of technical Slang an article will hold comfortably. Overdone mannerism is always a mistake, and generally defeats its own end. Properly used, these technicalities are allowable as the generous inflections and bendings of a bountiful language, for the purpose of expressing fresh phases of thought, and ideas not yet provided with representative words. Punch often employs a Slang term to give point to a joke, or humour to a line of satire. In his best day he gave an original etymology of the schoolboy-ism “slog.” “Slog,” said the classical and then clever Punch, is derived from the Greek word “slogo,” to baste, to wallop, to slaughter. To show his partiality to the subject, he once amused his readers with two columns on Slang and Sanscrit, from which the following is taken:—
“The allegory which pervades the conversation of all Eastern nations is the foundation of Western Slang; and the increased number of students of the Oriental languages, especially since Sanscrit and Arabic have been made subjects for the Indian Civil Service examinations, may have contributed to supply the English language with a large portion of its new dialect. While, however, the spirit of allegory comes from the East, there is so great a difference between the brevity of Western expression and the more cumbrous diction of the Oriental, that the origin of a phrase becomes difficult to trace. Thus, for instance, whilst the Turkish merchant might address his friend somewhat as follows—‘That which seems good to my father is to his servant as the perfumed breath of the west wind in the calm night of the Arabian summer;’ the Western negotiator observes more briefly, ‘all serene!’”
But the vulgar term, “brick,” Punch remarks in illustration,
“must be allowed to be an exception, its Greek derivation being universally admitted, corresponding so exactly as it does in its rectangular form and compactness to the perfection of manhood, according to the views of Plato and Simonides; but any deviation from the simple expression, in which locality is indicated—as, for instance, ‘a genuine Bath’—decidedly breathes the Oriental spirit.”
It is singular that what Punch says unwittingly and in humour respecting the Slang expression “bosh,” should be quite true. “Bosh,” remarks Punch, after speaking of it as belonging to the stock of words pilfered from the Turks, “is one whose innate force and beauty the slangographer is reluctantly compelled to admit. It is the only word which seems a proper appellation for a great deal which we are obliged to hear and to read every day of our life.” “Bosh,” nonsense or stupidity, is derived from the Gipsy and the Persian. The universality of Slang is proved by its continual use in the pages of Punch. Who ever thinks, unless belonging to a past generation, of asking a friend to explain the stray vulgar words employed by the London Charivari? Some of the jokes, though, might nowadays be accompanied by explanatory notes, in similar style to that adopted by youthful artists who write “a man,” “a horse,” &c., when rather uncertain as to whether or not their efforts will meet with due appreciation.
The Athenæum, the Saturday Review, and other kindred “weeklies,” often indulge in Slang words when force of expression or a little humour is desired, or when the various writers wish to say something which is better said in Slang, or so-called vulgar speech, than in the authorized language. Bartlett, the compiler of the Dictionary of Americanisms, continually cites the Athenæum as using Slang and vulgar expressions; but the magazine the American refers to is not the literary journal of the present day,—it was a smaller, and now defunct, “weekly.” The present possessor of the classic title is, though, by no means behindhand in its devotion to colloquialisms. Many other highly respectable journals often use Slang words and phrases. The Times (or, in Slang, the “Thunderer”) frequently employs unauthorized terms; and, following a “leader” of the purest and most eloquent composition, may sometimes be seen another “article” on a totally different subject, containing, perhaps, a score or more of exceedingly questionable words. Among the words and phrases which may be included under the head of Literary Slang are, “balaam,” matter kept constantly in type about monstrous productions of nature, to fill up spaces in newspapers; “balaam-box,” the term given in Blackwood to the repository for rejected articles; and “slate,” to pelt with abuse, or “cut up” in a review. “He’s the fellow to slate a piece” is often said of dramatic critics, especially of those who through youth, inexperience, and the process of unnatural selection which causes them to be critics, imagine that to abuse all that is above their comprehension is to properly exercise the critical faculty. This is, however, dangerous ground. The Slang names given to newspapers are curious;—thus, the Morning Advertiser is known as the “Tap-tub,” the “’Tizer,” and was until recently the “Gin and Gospel Gazette.” The Morning Post has obtained the suggestive sobriquet of “Jeames;” whilst the Morning Herald was long caricatured as “Mrs. Harris,” and the Standard as “Mrs. Gamp.”
The Stage, of course, has its Slang—“both before and behind the curtain,” as a journalist remarks. The stage-manager is familiarly termed “daddy;” and an actor by profession, or a “professional,” is called a “pro.” It is amusing at times to hear a young actor—who struts about padded with copies of all newspapers that have mentioned his name—talking, in a mixed company, of the stage as the profession. This is after all but natural, for to him “all the world’s a stage.” A man who is occasionally hired at a trifling remuneration to come upon the stage as one of a crowd, or when a number of actors are wanted to give effect, is named a “supe,”—an abbreviation of “supernumerary.” A “surf” is a third-rate actor, who frequently pursues another calling; and the band, or orchestra between the pit and the stage, is generally spoken of as the “menagerie.” A “ben” is a benefit; and “sal” is the Slang abbreviation of “salary.” Should no money be forthcoming on the Saturday night, it is said that the “ghost doesn’t walk;” or else the statement goes abroad that there is “no treasury,” as though the coffers themselves had departed. The travelling or provincial theatricals, who perform in any large room that can be rented in a country village, are called “barn-stormers.” A “length” is forty-two lines of any dramatic composition; and a “run” is the continuous term of a piece’s performance. A “saddle” is the additional charge made by a manager to an actor or actress upon his or her benefit night. To “mug up” is to paint one’s face, or arrange the person, to represent a particular character; to “corpse,” or to “stick,” is to balk, or put the other actors out in their parts by forgetting yours. A performance is spoken of as either a “gooser” or a “screamer,” should it be a failure or a great success;—if the latter, it is not infrequently termed a “hit.” To “goose” a performance is to hiss it; and continued “goosing” generally ends, or did end before managers refused to accept the verdict of audiences, in the play or the players being “damned.” To “star it” is to perform as the centre of attraction, with your name in large type, and none but subordinates and indifferent actors in the same performance. The expressive term “clap-trap,” high-sounding nonsense, is nothing but an ancient theatrical term, and signified a “trap” to catch a “clap” by way of applause. “Up amongst the ‘gods,’” refers to being among the spectators in the gallery,—termed in French Slang “paradis.”
There exists, too, in the great territory of vulgar speech what may not inappropriately be termed Civic Slang. It consists of mercantile and Stock Exchange terms, and the Slang of good living and wealth. A turkey hung with sausages is facetiously styled an “alderman in chains,”—a term which has spread from the City and become general; and a half-crown, perhaps from its rotundity, is often termed an “alderman.” A “bear” is a speculator on the Exchange; and a “bull,” although of an opposite order, follows a like profession. There is something very humorous and applicable in the Slang term “lame duck,” a defaulter in stock-jobbing speculations. The allusion to his “waddling out of the Alley,” as they say, is excellent. “Breaking shins,” in City Slang, is borrowing money; a rotten or unsound scheme is spoken of as “fishy;” “rigging the market” means playing tricks with it; and “stag” was a common term during the railway mania for a speculator without capital, a seller of “scrip” in “Diddlesex Junction” and other equally safe lines. At Tattersall’s a “monkey” is 500l., and in the City a “plum” is 100,000l., and a “marygold” is one million sterling. But before proceeding further in a sketch of the different kinds of Slang, it may be as well to speak here of the extraordinary number of Cant and Slang terms in use to represent money—from farthings to bank-notes the value of fortunes. Her Majesty’s coin, collectively or in the piece, is known by more than one hundred and thirty distinct Slang words, from the humble “brown” (a halfpenny) to “flimsies,” or “long-tailed ones” (bank-notes).
“Money,” it has been well remarked, “the bare, simple word itself, has a sonorous, significant ring in its sound,” and might have sufficed, one would have imagined, for all ordinary purposes, excepting, of course, those demanded by direct reference to specific sums. But a vulgar or “fast” society has thought differently; and so we have the Slang synonyms—“beans,” “blunt” (i.e., specie,—not soft or rags, bank-notes), “brads,” “brass,” “bustle,” “coppers” (copper money, or mixed pence), “chink,” “chinkers,” “chips,” “corks,” “dibbs,” “dinarly,” “dimmock,” “dust,” “feathers,” “gent” (silver,—from argent), “haddock” (a purse of money), “horse nails,” “huckster,” “loaver,” “lour” (the oldest Cant term for money), “mopusses,” “needful,” “nobbings” (money collected in a hat by street-performers), “ochre” (gold), “pewter,” “palm oil,” “pieces,” “posh,” “queen’s pictures,” “quids,” “rags” (bank-notes), “ready,” or “ready gilt,” “redge” (gold), “rhino,” “rowdy,” “shiners” (sovereigns), “skin” (a purse of money), “stiff” (checks, or bills of acceptance), “stuff,” “stumpy,” “tin” (silver), “wedge” (silver), and “yellow-boys” (sovereigns);—just forty-three vulgar equivalents for the simple word money. So attentive is Slang speech to financial matters, that there are seven terms for bad, or “bogus,” coin (as our friends the Americans call it): a “case” is a counterfeit five-shilling piece; “half a case” represents half that sum; “grays” are halfpence made specially for unfair gambling purposes; “queer-soft” is counterfeit or lead coin; “schofel” refers to coated or spurious coin; “sheen” is bad money of any description; and “sinkers” bears the same and not inappropriate meaning. “Snide” is now the generic term for all bad money, whether coined or in notes; and “snide-pitching” or “schoful-tossing” is the term in use among the professors of that pursuit for what is more generally known as “smashing.” “Flying the kite,” or obtaining money on bills and promissory-notes, is closely connected with the allegorical expression of “raising the wind,” which is a well-known phrase for procuring money by immediate sale, pledging, or by a forced loan. In winter or in summer any elderly gentleman who may have prospered in life is pronounced “warm;” whilst an equivalent is immediately at hand in the phrase “his pockets are well lined,” or “he is well breeched.” Each separate piece of money has its own Slang term, and often half a score of synonyms. To begin with that extremely humble coin, a farthing: first we have “fadge,” then “fiddler;” then “gig,” and lastly “quartereen.” A halfpenny is a “brown” or a “madzer (pronounced ‘medzer’) saltee” (Cant), or a “mag,” or a “posh,” or a “rap,”—whence the popular phrase, “I don’t care a rap.” The useful and universal penny has for Slang equivalents a “copper,” a “saltee” (Cant), and a “winn.” Twopence is a “deuce,” and threepence is either “thrums” or “thrups.” “Thrums” has a special peculiarity; for while “thrums-buskin” represents threepence-halfpenny, the term “buskin” is not used in connexion with any other number of pence. Fourpence, or a groat, may in vulgar speech be termed a “bit,” a “flag,” or a “joey.” Sixpence is well represented in street talk, and some of the slangisms are very comical—for instance, “bandy,” “bender,” “cripple,” and “downer;” then we have “buck,” “fye-b’ck,” “half a hog,” “kick” (thus “two and a ‘kick,’” or 2s. 6d.), “lord of the manor,” “pig,” “pot” (the price of a pot of ale—thus half-a-crown is a “five ‘pot’ piece”), “snid,” “sprat,” “sow’s baby,” “tanner,” “tester,” “tizzy,”—seventeen vulgar words to one coin. Sevenpence being an uncommon amount has only one Slang synonym, “setter.” The same remark applies to eightpence and ninepence, the former being only represented by “otter,” and the latter by the Cant phrase “nobba-saltee.” Tenpence is “dacha-saltee,” and elevenpence “dacha-one,”—both Cant expressions. It is noticeable that coined pieces, and sums which from their smallness or otherwise are mostly in use, receive a commensurate amount of attention from promoters of Slang. One shilling boasts eleven Slang equivalents; thus we have “beong,” “bob,” “breaky-leg,” “deener,” “gen” (from the back Slang), “hog,” “levy,” “peg,” “stag,” “teviss,” and “twelver.” One shilling and sixpence is a “kye,” now and then an “eighteener.” It is noticeable that so far the florin has escaped, and only receives the shilling titles with the required numeral adjective prefixed. Half-a-crown is known as an “alderman,” “half a bull,” “half a wheel,” “half a tusheroon,” and a “madza (medzer) caroon;” whilst a crown piece, or five shillings, may be called either a “bull,” a “caroon,” a “cartwheel,” or a “coachwheel,” or, more generally than either, a “wheel” or a “tusheroon.” The word “dollar” is in general use among costermongers and their customers, and signifies exactly five shillings. Any term representing this amount “takes in two,” and represents the half-crown by the addition of the usual prefix. The next advance in Slang money is ten shillings, or half-a-sovereign, which may be either pronounced as “half a bean,” “half a couter,” “a madza poona,” “half a quid,” or “half a thick ’un.” A sovereign, or twenty shillings, is a “bean,” “canary,” “couter,” “foont,” “goldfinch,” “James” (from Jacobus), “poona,” “portrait,” “quid,” “thick-un,” or “yellow-boy.” Guineas are nearly obsolete, yet the terms “neds” and “half neds” are still in use. Bank-notes are “flimsies,” “long-tailed ones,” or “soft.” A “fin,” or a “finnuf,” is a five-pound note. Twenty-five pounds is a “pony,” and a hundred a “century.” One hundred pounds (or any other “round sum”), quietly handed over as payment for services performed, is curiously termed “a ‘cool’ hundred.” Thus ends, with several necessary omissions, this long list of Slang terms for the coins of the realm which, for copiousness, it is not too much to say, is not equalled by any other vulgar or unauthorized language in Europe.
The antiquity of many of these Slang names is remarkable. “Winn” was the vulgar term for a penny in the days of Queen Elizabeth; and “tester,” a sixpence (formerly a shilling), was the correct name in the days of Henry VIII. The reader, too, will have remarked the frequency of animals’ names as Slang terms for money. Little, as a modern writer has remarked, do the persons using these phrases know of their remote and somewhat classical origin, which may, indeed, be traced to a period anterior to that when monarchs monopolized the surface of coined money with their own images and superscriptions. They are identical with the very name of money among the early Romans, which was pecunia, from pecus, a flock. The collections of coin-dealers amply show that the figure of a “hog” was anciently placed on a small silver coin; and that that of a “bull” decorated larger ones of the same metal. These coins were frequently deeply crossed on the reverse; this was for the convenience of easily breaking them into two or more pieces, should the bargain for which they were employed require it, and the parties making it had no smaller change handy to complete the transaction. Thus we find that the “half bull” of the itinerant street-seller, or “traveller,” so far from being a phrase of modern invention, as is generally supposed, is in point of fact referable to an era extremely remote. This remark will safely apply to most descriptions of money; and it must not be forgotten that farthing is but a corruption of fourthing, or, literally, fourth part of a penny. The representative coin of the realm was often in olden times made to break up,—but this by the way. It is a reminder, however, that the word “smash,” as used by the classes that speak Slang from motives other than those of affectation, has nothing whatever to do with base coin, as is generally supposed. It simply means to give change. Thus:—“Can you smash a thick ’un for me?” means simply, “Can you give me change for a sovereign?” We learn from Erizzo, in his Discorso, a further illustration of the proverb “that there is nothing new under the sun;” for he says that the Roman boys at the time of Hadrian tossed up their coppers and cried, “Head or ship;” of which tradition our “heads or tails,” and “man or woman,” or “a tanner I heads ’em,” is certainly a less refined version. We thence gather, however, that the prow of a vessel would appear to have been the more ordinary device of the reverse of the brass coin of that ancient period. There are many other Cant words directly from a classic source, as will be seen in the dictionary.
Shopkeepers’ Slang is perhaps the most offensive of all Slang, though this is not intended to imply that shopkeepers are perhaps the most offensive of people. This kind of Slang is not a casual eyesore, as newspaper Slang, neither is it an occasional discomfort to the ear, as in the case of some vulgar byword of the street; but it is a perpetual nuisance, and stares you in the face on tradesmen’s invoices, on labels in the shop-windows, and placards on the hoardings, in posters against the house next to your own—if it happen to be empty for a few weeks—and in bills thrust into your hand, as you peaceably walk through the streets. Under your door, and down your area, Slang handbills are dropped by some “pushing” tradesman; and for the thousandth time you are called upon to learn that an “alarming sacrifice” is taking place in the next street; that prices are “down again;” that, in consequence of some other tradesman not “driving a roaring trade,” being in fact, “sold up,” and for the time being a resident in “Burdon’s Hotel” (Whitecross-Street Prison), the “pushing” tradesman wishes to sell out at “awfully low prices,” to “the kind patrons, and numerous customers,” &c. &c., “that have on every occasion,” &c. &c. These are, though, very venial offenders compared with those ghouls, the advertising undertakers, who employ boys, loaded with ghastly little books, to follow up the parish doctor, and leave their horrible wares wherever he calls. But what can be expected of ignorant undertakers when a London newspaper of large circulation actually takes out the death records from the Times, and sends a circular to each address therein, informing the bereaved persons that the “——” charges so much per line for similar notices, and that its circulation is most extensive? Surely the typical “death-hunter,” hardened though he may be, is hardly down to that level. In shopkeeping Slang any occupation or calling is termed a “line,”—thus, the “building line.” A tailor usurps to himself a good deal of Slang. Amongst operatives he is called a “snip,” a “steel-bar driver,” a “cabbage contractor,” or a “goose persuader;” by the world, a “ninth part of a man;” and by the young collegian, or “fast” man, a “sufferer.” If he takes army contracts, it is “sank work;” if he is a “slop” tailor, he is a “springer up,” and his garments are “blown together.” Perquisites with him are “spiffs,” and remnants of cloth “peaking, or cabbage.” The per-centage he allows to his assistants (or “counter jumpers”) on the sale of old-fashioned articles is termed “tinge.” If he pays his workmen in goods, or gives them tickets upon other tradesmen, with whom he shares the profit, he is soon known as a “tommy master.” If his business succeeds, it “takes;” if neglected, it becomes “shaky,” and “goes to pot;” if he is deceived by a debtor (a by no means unusual circumstance), he is “let in,” or, as it is sometimes varied, “taken in.” It need scarcely be remarked that any credit he may give is termed “tick.”
Operatives’ or workmen’s Slang, in quality, is but slightly removed from tradesmen’s Slang. When belonging to the same shop or factory, they “graft” there, and are “brother chips.” Among printers the favourite term is “comps,”—not compositors, though the same contraction is used for that word,—but companions, whether so in actual fact, or as members of the same “companionship.” A companionship is the number of men engaged on any one work, and this is in turn reduced to “ship:” sometimes it is a “’stab ship,” i.e., paid by the week, therefore on the establishment; sometimes it is “on the piece,” and anyhow it is an extremely critical organization, so perhaps it would be better to broaden the subject. Workmen generally dine at “slap-bang shops,” and are often paid at “tommy shops.” At the nearest “pub,” or public-house, they generally have a “score chalked up” against them, which has to be “wiped off” regularly on the Saturday night. This is often known as a “light.” When credit is bad the “light” is said to be out. When out of work, they describe themselves as being “out of collar.” They term each other “flints” and “dungs,” if they are “society” or “non-society” men. Their salary is a “screw,” and to be discharged is to “get the sack,” varied by the expression “get the bullet,” the connexion of which with discharge is obvious, as the small lecturers—those at the Polytechnic for instance—say, to the meanest capacity. When they quit work, they “knock off;” and when out of employ, they ask if any “hands” are, or any assistance is, wanted. “Fat” is the vulgar synonym for perquisites; “elbow grease” signifies labour; and “Saint Monday” is the favourite day of the week. Names of animals figure plentifully in the workman’s vocabulary; thus we have “goose,” a tailor’s smoothing-iron; “sheep’s-foot,” an iron hammer; “sow,” a receptacle for molten iron, whilst the metal poured from it is termed “pig.” Many of the Slang terms for money may have originally come from the workshop, thus—“brads,” from the ironmonger; “chips,” from the carpenter; “dust,” from the goldsmith; “feathers,” from the upholsterer; “horse-nails,” from the farrier; “haddock,” from the fishmonger; and “tanner and skin” from the leather-dresser.
If society, as has been remarked, is a sham, from the vulgar foundation of commonalty to the crowning summit of royalty, then do we perceive the justness of the remark in that most peculiar of peculiarities, the Slang of makeshifts for oaths, and sham exclamations for passion and temper. These apologies for feeling are an addition to our vernacular, and though some argue that they are a disgrace, for the reason that no man should pretend to swear or curse who does not do so, it is some satisfaction to know that they serve the purpose of reducing the stock of national profanity. “You be blowed,” or “I’ll be blowed if,” &c., is an exclamation often heard in the streets. “Blazes,” or “like blazes,” came probably from the army, unless, indeed, it came from the original metaphor, afterwards corrupted, to serve all turns, “to smoke like blazes.” “Blast,” too, although in general vulgar use, may have had an engineering or military origin, and the phrase, “I wish I may be shot, if,” smacks much of powder. “Blow me tight” is a very windy and common exclamation. The same may be said of “strike me lucky,” “never trust me,” and “so help me Davy;” the latter being evidently derived from the truer old phrase, “I’ll take my Davy on’t”—i.e., my affidavit, “Davy,” and sometimes “Alfred Davy,” being a corruption of that word. “By Golly,” “Gol darn it,” and “so help”—generally pronounced “selp” or “swelp”—“me Bob,” are evident shams for profane oaths. “Tarnation” is but a softening of damnation; and “od,” whether used in “od drat it,” or “od’s blood,” is but an apology for the name of the Deity. “Marry,” a term of asseveration in common use, was originally, in Popish times, a mode of swearing by the Virgin Mary;—so also “marrow-bones,” for the knees. “I’ll bring him down upon his marrow-bones,”—i.e., I’ll make him bend his knees as he does to the Virgin Mary. The Irish phrase, “Bad scran to yer!” is equivalent to wishing a person bad food. “I’m sniggered if you will,” and “I’m jiggered,” are other mild forms of swearing among men fearful of committing an open profanity, yet slily nibbling at the sin. Maybe, some day one of these adventurers will meet with the object of his desires, and then when fairly “jiggered,” whatever it may ultimately turn out to be, it is to be hoped he will prove a fearful example to all persons with the will, but not the pluck, to swear fierce oaths. Both “deuce” and “dickens” are vulgar old synonyms for the devil; and “zounds” is an abbreviation of “God’s wounds,”—a very ancient oath.
In a casual survey of the territory of Slang, it is curious to observe how well represented are the familiar wants and failings of life. First, there is money, with one hundred and odd Slang terms and synonyms; then comes drink, from small beer to champagne; and next as a very natural sequence, intoxication, and fuddlement generally, with some half a hundred vulgar terms, graduating the scale of drunkenness, from a slight inebriation to the soaky state which leads to the gutter, sometimes to the stretcher, the station-house, the fine, and, most terrible of all, the “caution.” The Slang synonyms for mild intoxication are certainly very choice,—they are “beery,” “bemused,” “boozy,” “bosky,” “buffy,” “corned,” “foggy,” “fou,” “fresh,” “hazy,” “elevated,” “kisky,” “lushy,” “moony,” “muggy,” “muzzy,” “on,” “screwed,” “stewed,” “tight,” and “winey.” A higher or more intense state of beastliness is represented by the expressions, “podgy,” “beargered,” “blued,” “cut,” “primed,” “lumpy,” “ploughed,” “muddled,” “obfuscated,” “swipey,” “three sheets in the wind,” and “top-heavy.” But the climax of fuddlement is only obtained when the “disguised” individual “can’t see a hole in a ladder,” or when he is all “mops and brooms,” or “off his nut,” or with his “main-brace well spliced,” or with the “sun in his eyes,” or when he has “lapped the gutter,” and got the “gravel rash,” or is on the “ran-tan,” or on the “ree-raw,” or when “sewed up,” and regularly “scammered,”—then, and not till then, is he entitled, in vulgar society, to the title of “lushington,” or recommended to “put in the pin,” i.e., the linch-pin, to keep his legs steady.
SOURCE: The Slang Dictionary BY John Camden Hotten